Jeremiah is buying a last-minute birthday gift for his daughter Opal. The name has always seemed hippyish to him, something that his white wife Gina must’ve read in some old book about sunburnt kids holding up peace signs. When Opal was first born, Jeremiah worked his mouth around the name like a popsicle. Opal. It fit in his mouth both stiff and smooth like the ridge of a whale bone. And her mouth soon grew to form the words Dada, a name that didn’t seem like a name but more like a childish flinging of the tongue. A random two-syllable beat.
Jeremiah quickly combs through the aisles, turning his head every so often as his sneakers tread against the whiteish floor. Sometimes he looks over his shoulders. Not necessarily because he thinks he’s being followed but because in life it is better to anticipate. The store is crowded. There are other worries than a black man in khakis. What do you buy for a teenage girl?
Since Opal was born, Jeremiah’s cousins had told him to protect her. Something about her loose curls, or light brown eyes, or how men kill women for looking away from them. Anyways, Jeremiah had tried. Jeremiah walked her to school from age six to age twelve. Under Opal’s pink sandals murmured the faint calls of Jeremiah’s less pretty children, their faces spat from umber, their names worn and frayed. His dead children didn’t bother Opal, could not bother her. Instead, they played hopscotch under the sidewalk. Most black kids don’t seek memoriam.
In the card section, a white envelope. A daddy loves you. A daddy will always be there. A daddy has chosen you pretty girl, light thing, good girl. In the cosmetics aisle, nail polish. Not red. Red is for fast girls. Shaniah and her red tank top and too big smile. Tamikah and her homecoming queen crown and juicy lips and flat iron burns. So maybe yellow polish. Like Opal’s skin. Jeremiah keeps walking.
As he passes toy guns and trains, Jeremiah’s lips twitch. He has hungered for a new son. His mouth waters for it, imagining the slick leathery back of a basketball. Opal is his baby girl. But he worries for her body, the danger of her shoulders broadening or biceps bulging. Black women so often become boulders between mattresses. Bulky. Unforgiving. Masculine. Chicken flesh between teeth. Nah, Opal would be a lady, even if Jeremiah had to bind her wrists.
Jeremiah is not a deadbeat. He sends the money when he’s supposed to. And what is 100 dollars to a grave? What is a check to a mother of a child forgotten? He is doing so much better with Opal. In the beginning, it was so easy. Hold the baby. Put down the baby. Give the baby to Gina. Then, hold Opal’s hand. Cross the street. Say have a good day baby. Then, work so you can afford Whole Foods. Give money to Gina for Opal’s first bra shopping. Imagine fighting off a sea of men that all look like you.
Jeremiah’s own father was shaped like a gum with no tooth and still, Jeremiah turned out fine. He watched his mother’s ankles swell into the size of melons and sometimes he wanted to kiss them. Sometimes he just wanted his mother to mourn quieter. Her body, a graveyard. A tribute to a man who would never stop running.
Jeremiah is not his father. Jeremiah could not be. For now, he is buying clear lipgloss and pens with floral scents. For now, Opal is an only child. He waits in line and considers that Gina must be baking cake right about now. Opal loves strawberry frosting, which Jeremiah hates, and for a moment he wonders if any of his other kids had inherited his taste. The cashier in front of him could be 17, could be younger. He recognizes her familiar nose, wide and flat. He doesn’t speak to her as he pays. There are a million better men in the world and surely she will know one.
© Brianne Allen
[This piece was the winner of the 2019 Forge Flash Fiction Competition]